Excerpt from

Stephen Kuusisto, Planet of the Blind

BY THE AGE of five, I've been in and out of hospitals. The muscles
         around my eyes have been cut and stitched as a means of cor-
         recting my strabismus. After the surgery I have bandages on my
         eyes for several months, and that is when I learn to hear. I spend
         whole afternoons listening. I can hear the wooden gears of the
         railroad clock that hangs on the far wall.
           The strabismus operation has made me appear less cross-eyed,
         though the eyes move independently, and in their separate
         depths of color they afford me nothing like depth perception or
         balance. By now my glasses are extremely thick. They allow me
         to make use of my delicate residual vision, but they're cumber-
         some and painful to wear, and the target of teasing by other
           On the first day of school the teacher, Mrs. Edinger, posts a
         photograph above the blackboard; two chubby infants swaddled
         in diapers stare down on the class. Those who are caught whis-
         pering will have their names appended under the babies' curled
           "This is the Baby Board," says Mrs. Edinger, "and anyone who
         talks out of turn will have their name put here. Only babies talk
         when they're supposed to be quiet!"
           When I enter the public school, I am without assistance.
         Without "low vision" specialists or special education standards, I
         am without the benefits of proper orientation and mobility train-
         ing. There are no braille lessons for me, no large print materials.
         The air flashes like quartz, and I see nothing of the arithmetic
         lesson. My fingers slide in all directions. I clasp and unclasp the
         lid of my pencil box, trace the scars on my desk. I pull at my
         eyelids in an effort to refine the mist.
           I must ask a question, some nearly useless thing like how many
         dogs are on the blackboard. I turn to Janet, who sits next to me,
         and whisper, "How many dogs are there?"
           "I see Stephen talking!" cries the teacher, and there is the
         staccato of chalk in action. "Stephen's name goes on the Baby
           I am swollen shut, catch myself, sit straight in my chair as
         laughter breaks around me.
           Without an assistant I am forced to listen.
           I listen like a person telephoning in the dark.
           I listen like the ornithologist who unwraps bird bones from
         tissue paper.
         EACH MORNING MRS. Edinger begins the day with a Bible story.
         Here come jawbones, slings, infants floating in baskets, a lion 5
         den, and a trapped man. Now she recites frankincense and
         myrrh, robes of gold, a nativity star.
           Everything comes to me by repetition.
           On the playground I lean against a wall, immured by the
         strings of words that have accumulated during the morning.
         Around me my classmates are playing a game loosely called Kill
         the Germans-they race through the November mire letting out
         shrieks. There is a great deal of arguing about who is dead.
         Sometimes I lower my head like a fullback and run right through
           Back in the classroom, I count imaginary frogs, butterflies,
         spacemen, following the lessons without usable print or concrete
         numbers. The world is skewed according to the compensatory
         pictures flashing through my head. I follow the teacher's words
         and make a kind of caged progress, trapped as I am in my own
         neural nets.
           One day Mrs. Edinger posts a photograph of astronauts above
         the blackboard.
           "Astronauts orbit the earth," she says, "and you can only be
         an astronaut if you are very good at your lessons."
           Students who finish their in-class assignments before the rest
         will henceforth be "astronauts"-permitted to orbit the class-
         room and peer over the shoulders of the others.
           John Glenn has just orbited the planet, sailing upright from
         sunrise to sunset within an hour. A television has been wheeled
         into our classroom, and I listen to Walter Cronkite, who is suffi-
         ciently loud even for the dead.
           Now as I press my nose to an impossible page, trying to read
         some inscription in the dust of damaged retinas, here comes a
         kid to loom over me. He is orbiting.
           "Hey," he murmurs, "get a little closer!" and he shoves my
         nose into the paper before passing down the row of desks.
           Later, playing alone, I pretend to be Walter Cronkite, shuf-
         fling unreadable pages. The attic is my television studio.
           I sit under the sloping eaves, and with rain on the roof for
         accompaniment, I talk to my audience.
         IN SCHOOL THE printed word scurries away from my one "reading
         eye"-words in fact seem to me like insects released from a box.
         While the class reads aloud, I watch the spirals of hypnotic light
         that ripple across my eyes when I move them from side to side. I
         do not belong here. My little body at this desk is something
         uncanny-a thing that belongs in the darkness and that has
         been brought to daylight.
           But I talk, answer questions, make others laugh. I'm interested
         in everything and tell the class that I can spell Tchaikovsky.
           Mrs. Edinger, she of the Astronaut Board, becomes the first
         saint in my life. She takes it upon herself to help me read. After
         school we sit at her desk, and with my nose jammed into the
         pages, we go over the words. And though I'm squinting and
         struggling supremely over each alphabetic squiggle, she has the
         patience of an archaeologist, one who dusts the microscopic
         shards before putting them away. With her, I hold my eye very
         still and make out the words.
           Years later I learn from my mother that Mrs. Edinger is a black
         woman and perhaps the first person of African American heri-
         tage to teach in this local New Hampshire school. We are mu-
         tual explorers as we go over the hopeless print. She's noticed my
         determination and has figured out that I have a photographic
         memory. This probably contributes to her desire to see me
         read--she knows I'll retain the words that I've struggled so hard
         to grasp.
           Hours of after-school time are spent before I can match the
         class in reading. I have to hold my book an inch from my eye
         and try hard to hold the hot, spasming muscle. The exhaustion
         of this is like the deep fatigue drivers feel after being too long on
         the road. The ordinary effort of reading is, for me, a whole-body
         experience. My neck, shoulders, and, finally, my lower back con-
         tract with pain. The legally blind know what it is to be old: even
         before the third grade I am hunched and shaking with effort,
         always on the verge of tears, seeing by approximation, craving a
         solid sentence. Then the words dissolve or run like ants. Never-
         theless I find a lighted room inside my head, a place for self-
         affiliation. I am not blind, am not the target of pranks.
           But leaving my reading lesson, a boy I think of as a friend
         steals my glasses and my panic brings me alive like a tree filled
         with birds: I navigate with my hands.
           "Hey, Blindo, over here!"
           He laughs along with several others, then they run.
           I lunge with my arms straight following the sounds of sneak-
         ers. I'm determined not to cry: steel keys revolve and lock in my
         brain. Then I trip on a curb and cut my hands on a storm drain.
           To this day I picture that boy clutching my glasses at a safe
         distance and watching me drift about. I learned early that with
         my glasses I'm blind, without them I'm a wild white face, a body
         groping, the miner who's come suddenly into the light.
           On this particular afternoon I am instantly put on display.
         Now, in one stroke, I am a jellyfish, measureless and unwieldy.
         More than thirty years have passed since that moment, but I'm
         still disconcerted by what it felt like to belong so thoroughly to
         other people, to be, in effect, their possession. There should be a
         book of etiquette for those who find themselves in the predica-
         ment of the monster. Robbed of my glasses, I was no longer an
         impaired boy who'd been barred from sports. Instead I was am-
           I suppose he must have thrown the glasses to the ground and
         run away. Probably an adult was coming; I can't remember now.
         BY THE THIRD grade, I'm wearing glasses fitted with telescopes
         and am promptly labeled "Martian." My anxieties live like pilot
         birds atop my shoulders. I pull all the hair from my eyebrows.
         Other kids call me Magoo over and over again.
           In the sixties, Mr. Magoo is the latest descendant in a long
         line of comic blind characters playing the role of the sighted
         man. Valentin Hauy, an eighteenth-century French educator
         and the first great benefactor of the blind, witnessed one such
         spectacle in 1771. A group of blind men were arranged in the
         village square of St. Ovide, all of them dressed like clowns, each
         wearing a dunce's cap. These are the people who unwittingly
         expose themselves, who can't control their hands.
           Hauy saw them in the village square, each carrying a musical
         instrument-a fiddle, a horn, a hand organ. On their faces the
         town magistrate had placed large cardboard cut-out spectacles.
         Placed before them on a desk were lanterns and sheets of music
         that the men made burlesque attempts at reading by playing
         their instruments, with predictable results. The villagers found
         this amusing enough to keep the show going for several weeks.
         When the musicians could no longer make money, they returned
         to their lives of begging. But their concert gives Magoo a comic
           In a magazine advertisement for the Blue Cross/Blue Shield
         health insurance companies, "Mr. Magoo" is a bald little blind
         man whose tightly shut eyes look like question marks. There's no
         attempt in any representation of Magoo to cover his eyes with
         dark glasses.
           In the advertisement Mr. Magoo is driving down a hill in an
         antiquated car. He's blissfully unaware that he's crossing the rail-
         way tracks. He mutters about the "potholes" as he drives across,
         just ahead of an oncoming train. Magoo is like Charlie Chaplin,
         who, blindfolded, circles the edge of a precipice on roller skates.

         His power resides in his luck, which is angelic. His every arrival
         is a miracle.
           When Mr. Magoo drives a car, America's television audience
         experiences the same comic frisson as Hauy's villagers who
         laughed at the beggars wearing cardboard spectacles. But the
         blind are seldom depicted as being more than this. They are
         blind fools, or conversely, they're suddenly cosmic.
         ASHAMED OF MY telescopes, I hide them in drawers and walk
         about with my head tipped slightly to the left to gain more
         refraction from my heavy prismatic glasses. I take to spending
         hours in attics or barns, places filled with tools and broken ma-
           My world is full of particulars, a glass case in a provincial
         museum. Here's a black dancing slipper with glued crimson
         feathers; a ballpoint pen from the Marcellus Casket Company.
         I'm nailed down with curios. But even the nearest things are
         evasive; objects buzz as in early motion pictures. Even as I wish
         to see, to pass for one who sees, that sight is eluding me.
           In a neighbor's shed I stand at the dusty keys of an upright
         piano and count how many have lost their ivory--two black
         keys are missing. And mice or moths have long since feasted on
         the purple felt that lines the back of the keyboard. I hear wasps
         striking windows, and a hand mower, and somewhere far off a
         radio tuned to a baseball game. But I am absorbed in the colors
         and odors of this instrument, which looms over me like a wreck,
         the hull that Robinson Crusoe returned to. I am drawn by its
         worn pedals, the pegs and hammers, the cast iron frame, and the
         sour metallic scent of its dead strings.
           I press my nose to everything. I look perpetually like a mendi-
         cant on Ash Wednesday.
           I draw the skeleton of a catfish across the bridge of my glasses.
           I go to the woods and sit on the mossy ledge of a great stone.
         As blue turns to black, the sky is momentarily transparent. I am
         skating there, tuming my head sharply, intuiting the next place
         to rest my forehead.
         MY SISTER is a true friend, a collector of shining oddities, a
         woman's shoe containing a daddy longlegs and a moth that she
         has found in a dusty corner of the garage.
           We spend the afternoon building a votive temple around this
         insect sarcophagus. For guards we have a stuffed lion, a flesh-
         colored plastic figurine of Tarzan, a Raggedy Ann doll wearing a
         red skirt. I need someone to bring me objects and say "Look at
         this!" My sister doesn't seem to notice that I have to place each
         thing up against my jumping eyes. She's oblivious to her
         brother's resemblance to Franz Kafka as a kid-a child whose
         eyes can't look straight.
           Some years ago I came across a photograph of Kafka at the age
         of five. The photo shows that he had a wandering eye, or what
         doctors call a "lazy eye." Though he's trying to look at the cam-
         era, he seems lost. He's dressed like a circus ringmaster. Behind
         him is an animal with the head of a sheep, though its hindquar-
         ters and tail suggest something of the dog. It has a bridle and
         saddle, as though it's meant to be ridden. This is a photogra-
         pher's studio creature, something from the workshop of an odd
         cobbler. Kafka looks at home with the creature; his world is
         routinely a place of ill-defined animals, of things that are not
         what they seem.
           I imagine he sees blue smoke. Faces loom, adults are rising
         from the vista like sensate stones. These are the gorgeous mi-
         rages pf not-seeing, moments red and green and black as the
         studios of Matisse. The moments are seriocomic: a white horse
         stands at the circus, no, it's a bedsheet in the wind.
           I, too, went to the circus. Under the great Barnum tent, the
         lion tamer-Clyde Beatty in a two-story iron cage-appears like
         the Duke of Mantua, fighting three leopards with a chair and
         whip. All this I did not see. What I did see was the pink floodlit
         haze where that cage stood, heard the crack of a whip, the roar
         of the cats. The faces of the children and adults who surrounded
         me in the raised wooden bleachers were lit as though their cot-
         ton candy contained glowworms. But beyond this, wherever I
         looked, the concentration of the colors flew apart, the kaleido-
         scope circus fog of Gypsy tints and shadows flooded me.
           I watched the face of my uncle, a heavy, simian, unshaven
         man, one who was not given to smiling. He studied the drama of
         Clyde Beatty, his expression as intense as that of the immigrant
         who has sighted shore at last. Around his head floated smoke
         rings from his expensive cigar. He told me at last that the cats
         were lying down. The crowd was wild. When I looked toward
         the cage, I saw astral lava, a pink hurricane of cigar-lit stage
         lights, and then the gold flash of what I took to be the whip.
           Unable to see, I watched appearances abound, and while the
         animals were too far away, the harlequin masks of family loomed
         around me. Like the boyish Kafka, I smiled.